Elves: Once Walked with Gods by James Barclay
Published by Gollancz, September 2010.
Review by Mark Yon
After the somewhat climatic ending of James’s mercenary group, The Raven, in Ravensoul (reviewed HERE), we now return to the beginning. James latest book starts from a time pre-Raven, though focusing on one of the much-loved (and long living) groups – the Elves.
Set about three thousand years before the arrival of Barclay’s The Raven, here we have the tale focused on the Elves and their previous history.
For the uninitiated, the mere mention of the word ‘elves’ may bring up thoughts and images of Tolkien’s Legolas and a calm peaceful, thoughtful people. However, I won’t deceive people here. Frankly, James’ guerrilla group Elves, the TaiGethren, would have Legolas and his band of merry men and women for breakfast. Underneath the initial seemingly passive culture there are vicious, savage and downright nasty characters. And they are angry.
For the tale here is mainly one of division and betrayal. The world of the Elves here is one of strict hierarchical order, known as threads. We start in a time of decline. Battling the demon Garonin at a portal between the Elvish world and Balaia resulted in the Elves survival, but also at a major loss, the death of 100 000 elves. Few remain, and the Elvish people are struggling to survive, many have been traumatised by loss and the fighting. The Ynissul, the eldest of the Elves, are in charge, but their command is fragile. The thousand years of peace are threatened by internal rivalry and division between the caste classes. As if this situation wasn’t complicated enough, the book here tells of the Elves first dealings with humans – a relationship that is rather tempestuous. When humans betray the Elves and take over Calaius, the Ynissul’s response is to set about on killing them all.
Enter then our hero Takaar, a disgraced elf and leader of a select group from the Garonin battle, who has been blamed for their losses and yet who may be the means of the Elves’ redemption. Exiled and denounced as a traitor, he lives on in disgrace. However, when given the support of a junior elf leader named Auum (whom older readers may recognise from the Raven novels) Takaar finds himself with two challenges: to reunite the Elves and lead them against the humans.
As you might expect from James, the tale is presented with speed and with precision – no bloated account, this one – and there’s enough conspiratorial double dealing to keep the reader happy. And as previous readers might expect, James’ action scenes, of which there are many, are also very well done, fast moving and vivid. Elves are not afraid to use their nails and teeth when needed in combat!
It’s not always easy filling in the dots, especially when you are dealing with environments that many know and love already. There are many other novels that have failed to do so. Nevertheless this one is a greatly exciting romp, with surprises and reveals along the way that will keep those pages turning.
Although fans of James’ earlier books will not be disappointed, you don’t need to have read the later novels to enjoy this one. In fact, this one’s a great starter, as well as an appetizer for things to come. If you want to sample James’ writing, and haven’t before, this is a pretty good place to start.
The next book in the series, Rise of the TaiGethren, is due August 2011.
Mark Yon, September 2010.